A premise of my professional life is the notion that we are all motivated to exceed our abilities. This idea is in some stratum of achievement ethos from psychyological theorists to business writers. I just happened to hear it from Seth Godin (in his Startup School podcast). I see it watching my son learn to crawl and then walk: the developmental drive to keep trying to do things you can’t do, and the exhileration of mastery. My problem, until now, is that I never stated it… even to myself.

An unstated premise can be a little problematic. If you don’t realize you have it, you try to explain your actions in other terms. If you don’t it is easy to find yourself fighting your own development – acting like a baby that won’t try standing until he can first determine that the ends are worthwhile and that he will be able to achieve them. The “Peter Principle,” that, “managers rise to the level of their incompetence,” takes on a diabolical aspect.

If you are kicking yourself for, “courting failure.” In a way, you are, but that’s a good thing.

It isn’t that the Peter Principle is necessarily wrong. It does appeal to a kind of cynicism that I try to reserve only for situations in which a little black humor can improve the mood, but it’s not necessarily wrong. The error lies in assuming that people should avoid situations where they might not be successful.

The upshot of this for leaders, is that that until your people face the real possibility of failure, they aren’t in a position where they can have fulfilling work and grow. Handle risks as you should for your organization. Consider the risks of stagnation in your people, and the cost of replacing them when they get sick of it. Give your people enough freedom to become fulfilled and productive in their work.

The more important takeaway, is about deciding whether to promote yourself by taking on something new. Chase that twinge of terror, that harbinger of risk. It inheres in every situation that could lead to fulfillment.

One caveat: don’t be an idiot. Do your due diligence. Just realize that the twinge in your gut might be the cue to take the next step.